I’ve worked as a freelancer for different companies since I was 19. The way the labor market’s going these days, working as a freelancer isn’t what happens when you’re made redundant — it’s a viable, flexible career strategy. Plus, it puts you in control of your own time and choices. And I can work anywhere, provided there’s WiFi; it’s hardly the worst idea in the world. But it does have a lot of catches, not least of which is that you may turn into a dribbling loon who hasn’t talked to a person face-to-face in a week. There are, however, ways to handle your freelancer life so it’s much, much better.
Freelancing isn’t for everybody. If you enjoy stability, reasonable hours, regular pay, only dealing with one boss at once, and getting to go to the bar on Friday with your coworkers, it’s not going to work for you. You’ve got to be independent and have a serious work ethic to handle freelancing in a way that sustains you and won’t drive you nuts. Otherwise you will need therapy and start dreaming longingly of water cooler conversations. Consider that a health and safety warning.
If this is your dream, though — whether it’s freelance photography, writing, consultancy or any field — go ahead and strike out on your own. Just take these tips and tricks with you to apply when freelancing get absolutely nuts. Godspeed.
1. Be sure to go outside.
Working from coffee shops is my jam, and I don’t even drink coffee. It’s important for freelancers who don’t have the social stimulation of a workplace environment to get it in other ways; studies have shown that workplace socializing actually helps with productivity, so feeling like you’re all alone might not make shutting your iPhone and actually working very easy.
Plus, do your best to stay connected in a human sense with coworkers, even if they’re on the other side of the world and/or you’ve never met. Ask about their days, join in congratulations emails and react to big news; remember to feel like a part of the company.
2. Sort out your tax and financial situation.
Freelancing is going to drive you up the wall unless you have a proper handle on your money and your tax situation, particularly if you’re working for companies or employers based in other countries and different tax codes. As soon as you’re able, hire an accountant. Seriously.
Keep meticulous notes of when you’re getting paid, how much, and by whom. The irregularity of freelance work will mean that you need to know about any shortfalls before they happen, so you can put aside money from a bigger pay packet to cover later gaps, or ask for more work. Freelancing means keeping one eye on the future at all times.
3. Keep all your records.
Over the course of the year you’ll likely take a lot of different jobs from different employers. It may go without saying, but have some kind of master list of these jobs, even if it’s bare bones — at the very least who it was for, when you did it, and how much you got paid. It’ll help a lot when it comes to taxes, for one thing, but it’s also a good way to keep track of how long you’ve worked for each particular employer and how much you’ve done for them — because it’ll highlight the patterns of their needs over a year, and whether you can negotiate better rates in the future.
4. Be sure you’ve signed a contract.
Legal protection for freelancers matters. I’ve had some very unpleasant situations in the past where I didn’t pay proper attention to the legal rights of my employers. If you’re a freelance journalist, for example, the company will own all rights to your work — but they’ll also defend it if, for example, if another publication plagiarizes it. Know where you stand and get things in writing as soon as you can.
5. Take jobs seriously.
Freelancing may seem like a carefree lifestyle, but it may also give you a serious mental problem if you alternate between relaxing and panicking about deadlines. You gotta be disciplined. Jobs can be prioritized according to deadline, but they’ve all got to be done, and done well. Your work may be freelance, but its quality still matters.
6. Collect other freelancing or “independent contractor” friends.
Most of my friends are academics, and when they’re researching they’re on their own timetables — so they’re good for sympathy, social time, and quiet working sessions together. It’s helpful for your own morale if you’ve got other people around you who are, on some level, doing what you’re doing. If all your current mates are in 9-to-5s, strike up new friendships through a freelancer meetup or bond with your other freelancing coworkers.
7. Structure your time realistically.
If you did a grad degree you may know about this already: working on your own schedule demands that you know when you’re most productive. Morning? Night? Do your best stuff at three in the morning? Awesome. Make it gel with your employers’ needs and your own life, too.
8. Know how to communicate with different bosses.
Freelancers will often have to become expert on communication that’s not face-to-face. This is a boon if you like thinking through questions before you pose them — but it can also mean the temptation to send out a form letter gets pretty intense. Nope. Learn each of your employers’ needs and communication styles; some will get freaked out if you respond immediately, others will be outraged if you don’t. And always err on the side of formality until they create a precedent otherwise.
9. Be prepared for people to think you don’t have a proper career.
Freelancing, to people who don’t do it for a living, can look carefree, charming, and utterly irresponsible, without any future. “But what will you do once you actually want a career?” my brother once asked me in bewilderment. This is common. Don’t sweat it. If you do want to head into a more solid, dependable job, then freelancing gives you a heap of skills to put you ahead of the pack: independence, dependability, the demonstrable ability to juggle five things at once. But you can go “up the ladder” in freelancing too — or change direction entirely. My advice? Revel in the freedom, and try not to let the tax situation give you a migraine.